It is not uncommon for people to view single friends as a problem that needs to be fixed. The feeling that singleness needs to be fixed is especially common around Valentines Day. These attempts to help set up people who they see as having potential with each other are well-meaning. The debate over how helpful this is another matter that I am not going to address here. What I am is that this efforts to get new people interacting with each other. This of course results in a lot of first impressions being made.
First impressions leave a lasting impact on one’s views of others. This is especially the case when we are told something about the person before we meet them. Given that what we know in advance will determine how we approach the other person. In the same way, first impressions also play an important role in how we relate to God. In that, the initial way that somebody introduces us to God has a profound and lasting effect on our view of God. So this got me thinking about how obvious the messed up nature of the anxious bench is in this context. The Bible has many different images used to describe God, including a king, judge, parent, and spouse. This is because different people and cultures find some images more helpful than others. The image of God as a lover is currently one of the more helpful Biblical images in our culture.
So let us consider a single man who a friend is trying to help him find a meaningful relationship. The friend starts to tell him about a certain wonderful local woman as an ideal match. He goes on to tell his friend not only how beautiful she is but also how she is a very loving person that is full of compassion. On top of that, she is playful and very fun to be around which makes her the most desirable available woman in town. So far everything sounds great, right? He then mentioned that there is just one little thing that his friend should know about. She has a short violent temper when it comes to rejection or her partner looking at other women. He goes on to caution his friend that it is very important not to ever consider breaking up with her. In fact simply passing over her now for another woman would be just as bad as she already knows that you are single. In the past, she has described as going berserk and lashing out big time against the last guy that scorned her. People say that she kicked him hard enough to knock him to the ground. Then once he was on the ground she continued to kick and stamp on him with her heels. Yet that was only the beginning as she then hauled him off to a hidden room in her basement and chained him to a wall. Rumor is that she has a whole room filled with loser guys that she makes sure to torture every night. Yet the friend reassured that it is nothing that he should be concerned about. As she is such a wonderful woman and her love is so great that it is unlike anything else that a man can experience. At this point, I am sure most people would feel that crazy, lunatic and or psychopath would be a more accurate description of her. In fact, they would likely question their friend’s sanity. As what type of person would insist that a person whose actions come off as so messed up is actually a very loving and compassionate person?
This is the reality of how the anxious bench distorts the image of God. The anxious bench twists one’s perception of God into that of a monster that demands to be viewed as loving and compassionate. This is what most evangelism efforts come off as thanks to the use of the anxious bench. So it makes perfect sense why a growing number of people do not want to have anything to do with the church. In my opinion, the biggest tragedy of American church history was the rise of the anxious bench. This is why it is essential to reevaluate how we talk about God to others. As the last thing that we want to do is to give somebody a negative first impression of God.
“An Anxious Bench may be crowded where no divine influence whatever is felt. A whole congregation may be moved with excitement, and yet be losing at the very time more than is gained in a religious point of view. Hundreds may be carried through the process of anxious bench conversion, and yet their last state may be worse than the first. It will not do to point us to immediate visible efforts, to appearances on the spot, or to glowing reports struck off from some heated imagination immediately after. Piles of copper, fresh from the mint, are after all something very difference from piles of gold.” ~ John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench
“Vows and pledges that spring from excitement rather than reflection are considered fanatical, and as such neither rational nor free; and thought in certain cases men may seem to be strengthened and supported by them in the prosecution of good ends belong to a lower sphere, they are ever to be deprecated in the sphere of religion tending only to delusion and sin.” ~ John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench
The Mercersburg Theology movement began as a reaction against the rise of the anxious bench in the 1840’s. At the time, John Williamson Nevin was the professor at the seminary of the German Reformed Church in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. In 1943, Nevin published the first edition of “The Anxious Bench”. In it he attacked the growing use of the anxious bench within the American church. The anxious bench, was part of a new style of revivalism ministry. The anxious bench is an emotionally manipulative method of evangelism. The anxious bench seeks to overwhelm one with a sense of guilt and hopelessness as a sinner in the hands of an angry God. The goal is to get the person worked up in the desired emotional state before presenting them with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The anxious bench emotionally attacks and tears down upon the person as being a worthless sinner before God. The anxious bench pretty much tells the person that they are no good and will never amount to anything apart from Jesus Christ. So figuratively the anxious bench confronts one with the choice of accepting the Gospel or suicide. At the time the anxious bench proved to be effective when it came to getting people saved at revivals. Which is why the anxious bench style ministry continues to live on to this day. The anxious bench lives on today especially in altar calls and street preachers. Nevin opposed the anxious bench because it lacked any deeper substance. The problem with the anxious bench is that it relies too heavily upon a sense of urgency under the pressure of emotional manipulation and fear. Thus anxious bench conversions tend to be too shallow to be sustainable long-term. Which makes sense as a conversion build upon the foundation of emotion hype will start to crumble upon the person calming down. Much like the typical New Years Resolution which rarely lasts long enough for the person to be able to give it up for Lent. The most tragic part of the anxious bench is that it often leaves the person in a worse spiritual state than they were before they “got saved”. The frequent failure of the anxious bench is not surprising as it goes against Jesus’ model of ministry. We need to keep in mind that while Jesus calls us to follow Him, that God never asks us to follow in blind faith. This is because Christianity is an invitation to follow God based upon what God has already done for us, is doing for us now and will do for us in the future. In the Gospels Jesus does not rush us but encourages us to pause and consider the cost: both the pros and cons of choosing to follow Him. Decisions that are carefully thought out when being rightly informed lead to much stronger long term commitments. With that in mind I invite you to reflect upon the nature of your relationship with God. If you find yourself relating to God primarily in terms of fear and obligations, I encourage you to reflect upon the nature of God’s love in your life. Ask yourself what is it about the love of God that is causing fear and if that is a rational approach or merely an aftertaste of the anxious bench in your life.
“The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” ~ Karl Rahner SJ
“My own religion was constitutionally of a mystical tendency and turn. It is not necessary to say what exactly it amounted to in myself more than this, that there was in me a sense and feeling of much in Christianity which was not to be reached in the way of common thought; but needed for its discernment and apprehension a deeper and more vital mode of knowledge.” ~ John Williamson Nevin
In recent years, many have declared that religion will soon be dead in America. And by religion, they mean Christianity. These claims of certain doom to Christianity are almost always rooted in some culture shift in society. If religion has its foundation in culture, they are right in saying that religion will soon be dead. People do not attend church on Sundays, just because it that is what we do as part of our duty as Americans. So if religion needs culture pressure to survive, then it will not survive a major culture shift. The debate over if the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation does not matter. Even if the United States of America was at one time a Christian nation, it is not a Christian nation now. So to try to insist upon a past that most historians consider a myth is not helping anybody. It is only betraying a position of fear and panic in the midst of weakness. In fact this type of reaction is what gave birth to prediction of the coming demise of Christianity.
Karl Rahner predicted the current crisis of the Western church. In his famous statement, he declared that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” To Rahner, a mystic is a person who has a genuine experience of God emerging from the heart of their existence. In other words, the time is coming when there will no longer be any middle ground in the church. The future of the American church will be like Jesus’ parable of the sower who spreads the seed. In the end it is only the seed that falls upon the good soil with deep roots and away from choking weeds that will remain. The challenge that remains is the church adapting to the new reality that surrounds us. In today’s world it is not unusual for people to spend more time with computers than other people. The rise of computers and the Internet at the birth of the information age has been another game changer. So how does one seek to develop deep and meaningful Christianity spirituality today? I believe that Mercersburg Theology is a good starting point. In a nutshell, Mercersburg Theology primarily focuses upon the Incarnation. (The Incarnation was the act of God becoming fully human in the person of Jesus Christ.) Mercersburg Theology has two obvious advantages when it comes to Raner’s vision. First, the focus upon Christ in the world makes it more adaptable to changes in the world. The second is that Mercersburg Theology tends to be more mystical in nature. In fact Mercersburg Theology has a history of leading people into mysticism. Starting with John Williamson Nevin, a founding theologian of the Mercersburg Theology movement. I will get into more detail about Mercersburg Theology in future posts. It is my goal to write practical posts that are able to benefit anybody that has a computer. I realize that people rarely mix topics such computers and deeper spirituality. Which is why I feel that it is all the more important to explore the neglected areas.